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Ismail Xavier: Visions on stage

The critic and professor analyzes the dialog between the Brazilian cinema and the Nelson Rodrigues theater


Diderot, D.W. Griffith and Alfred Hitchcock, Nelson Rodrigues, Glauber Rocha and Arnaldo Jabor. In crystal-clear essays, the professor and cinema critic Ismail Xavier, 56 years old, explains the contributions and the importance of each one of them for the cinema in his new book, O Olhar e a Cena [The Look and the Stage] (Cosac&Naify, 382 pages). Easy to cover, the texts written between 1988 and 2003 were stitched together to tell of the passage of the theater and of literature to the cinema “in a broad sense, which goes beyond a case of adaptation”, as the author himself says. The professor of the Cinema, Radio and Television Department of the Communications and Arts School of the University of São Paulo (ECA/USP), at the beginning of his career Ismail Xavier wavered between mechanical engineering and the cinema. He did the two courses simultaneously at USP, the first at the Polytechnic School and the second at ECA.

He graduated in 1970 and decided to study for a master’s degree at the Faculty of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences, under the supervision of Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes, an icon in the defense of the Brazilian cinema. For his doctorate, he received supervision from Antonio Candido, another icon, this time of Brazilian literature and culture in general. In 1982, he became a Ph.D. in studies of the cinema by New York University, where he also did postdoctoral studies. The author of several books and the coordinator of the collection Cinema, Teatro e Modernidade [Cinema, Theater and Modernity], by Cosac and Naify, Ismail Xavier seems to have taken the right decision by opting for studying the cinema, 30 years ago: today, he is one of the most respected thinkers on Brazilian cinema.

Let’s begin by talking about your book: in it, there is a first, theoretical, part that addresses the development of the cinema in the course of the 20th century, the entry into melodrama, the relationships with the quests for social representation of that moment, and a little of the relationship of the cinema with the theater. How was this conception developed?
There are two sides to the coin that ended up combining well. This book is a collection of articles and essays, produced over a long period, from 1988 to 2003. I have brought together in it all the texts in which, whether in the case of an analysis of specific films, or in the case of more theoretical texts, there was a discussion about the problem of acting, understood as that notion of the look and the stage, as thought from the 18th century onwards. There is a moment in the history of the theater at which the idea arises of seeking greater vigor in the question of the fourth wall that imaginary, invisible, wall between the public and the stage and greater vigor in the relationship between the blocked and demarcated stage and the audience. What is fundamental in this notion is the idea of establishing a game in which the actor does everything for a given look that he knows to be there, but that at the same time he pretends to ignore. So he shows himself off, but at the same time has to pretend to be absolutely self-absorbed. This is a basic principle of what people call bourgeois acting, created in the 18th century.

Is that where Diderot comes in (1713-1784).
Diderot is a key figure, because, in the first place, he did a criticism of the kind of staging that the French theater used to do of the classical tradition. He used to say: “That is not the stage, that is a recitation, nobody is worried about creating emotion, nobody is concerned with using the resources of the theater visually”. There was an excessive primacy of the text. It’s odd, because I myself was once in France watching plays at the Comédie Française, which is a very traditional theater, and up until today the staging is extremely timid. Even after two and a half centuries, and the whole enormous array of innovations of the modern theater, you go to the Comédie Française and note that the actors are very discrete. The interesting fact is that Diderot makes a criticism of this and asks for illusionism, asks for there to be this game that I have called the guile of acting, which is pretending with the body, with gestures, with words, to give the appearance of a natural situation, to give the appearance that he is experiencing all those emotions of the personage. And, in this, Diderot formulated the famous paradox of the comedian, addressed explicitly to the actor. That is, he has to work with this game in which he gives the appearance of living the personage, when in actual fact he is merely simulating. There was a demand from the audiences who had accustomed themselves to the idea that if you have a scene in a personage’s office, there has to be a desk, the whole apparatus, the scenic space reproducing what would be the ambience of the personage, and this is a fact that began to appear then.

Could the cinema be the crowning of this total expression of the nature of acting, or is it a break?
When the cinema appears, it has the most varied options for using the camera, for producing images. And there is a very interesting period, and the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th , which even historians call the cinema of attractions, because everything is possible. You could not least because the films were short film a horse race, a walk in the city, trips, a boxing match, a ballerina…

Is this experimentation to be found up to 1920?
Before that. Drama gains ground and transformed itself into the main thing in a cinematographic spectacle from 1910 onwards. There was an inflection point, shall we say, in 1908, more or less, in which all that variety begins to disappear and this vein linked to drama consolidated itself as the great genre of the spectacle.

This now happened with D.W. Griffith (1875-1948)?
I always refer to Griffith, because he is a symbolic figure, but he was not the only one. He was the main filmmaker of the United States, but there was also, in parallel, the same kind of development in France, in Italy.

And we have in history that goes in this direction up to 1950.
Yes, practically. This remained as a conquest that is present up until today. The industrial cinema, the cinema that is the experience of the public at large, is the same. There are small changes of style, small alterations in content of things, but, in terms of basic principle, what was consolidated between 1908 and 1917 made up a system for acting, shall we call it, because there are certain rules and precautions that have to be taken. There are ways of establishing certain relationships that if you do not do it that way, you may confuse the public in terms of construction of space, construction of time and of characterization of personages. And the genre that made this process advance most was melodrama.

How do you outline melodrama, within the experience of dramatic narrative in the cinema?
Within that principle of Diderot’s, “you have to be an illusionist, you have to give importance to the staging”, there is a very strong relationship between the melodrama genre and this idea that the visuality of the spectacle, the thing that is given to the gaze, is the major framework for the sought-after effects. A melodrama is generally characterized by giving a lot of importance to action, to the plot, to twists and turns. At the same time, it gives importance to the playing out of the emotions, it has all the brand of intensity. A genre created around 1800, melodrama was a kind of play written to be spoken normally, like any other play. When there is this idea that what should be expressed in the theater are emotions, sentiments, and struggles between good and evil, the body takes on more importance than before. And the looks as well, because from then on it becomes very convenient to start constructing the plot itself through situations in which someone sees something, and this vision brings new revelations in respect of the situation of the personages. So the look does not just come to have greater importance in the relationship between the stage and the public, but also in the very way how the conflicts between the personages are drawn. The look comes to have a very important role, which is what happens with the cinema.

But has this not become even more important in the cinema?
Obviously, in silent films this question of the look was got stronger, and the quest for the face on the screen and that which it is capable of expressing has two dimensions. One is the dimension of expressing inner feelings, emotion. But there is the other side, which is expressing a character’s intention and interest. All of us, up until today, when we go to the cinema, follow the development of the actions, and the look is one of the great indicators that the spectator is offered: the spatial references and that which a character invests in a relationship or fails to invest, that which demonstrates the interests, etc. In other words, the most normal thing until today in the cinema is a device that has been created since those days, which is the thing that you have a personage that puts on some sort of expression and looks at something, looks off the record, and next comes the response to the idealization of the spectator, because when you have an image like this one, the first question is: “What is itthat he sees?” Then cinema gives the answer, the classic cinema does this a lot, this game of question and answer all the time.

Why the choice in your book, particularly of Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) as one of the pillars of the cinema?
There are two poles. The first pole is the fact that, from the theoretical point of view, the book brings together a series of texts in which my interest lies in discussing this passing from the theater to the cinema. The people who defended the cinema as an art, who sought to convince the intellectuals and the public from the elite that it was worthwhile to watch films, and that here was a very rich new form of expression, started from the theory that their biggest task was to separate the cinema from the theater. It was to say: the cinema is not the theater on film. The most important axis of this passing is melodrama. Because cinema is the popular art of the 20th century, just as melodrama was of the 19th century. And melodrama continues to be a popular art today, because the television soap opera, a great spectacle with a great audience, is a new version of the melodrama. I do a theoretical discussion in which, in first place, there is Griffith as a key figure for the formation of the classic cinema, and there is Hitchcock, because he is the apogee. If we take the first half of the century, in particular, the great master capable of circulating at ease in this classic system and at the same time comment on it, within his own films, is Hitchcock. Watching his films, we have a first level of experience, which is to accompany the story normally. The second level of experience is to observe in what way that story is a great commentary about the cinema.

And why is that?
In Hitchcock’s cinema, the question of the look comes into the center. Much of what happens with the personages themselves is bound up with the way they employ the look, and in what fashion, within the film itself, this relationship happens between the look and the stage. The whole question from Hitchcock is the following: look, what are you here in the cinema for? We are not going to be moralists, you are here because you want to see the crime. If you don’t see it, you are going to get frustrated. You are here because, in a certain way, you want to have an experience in which, identifying yourselves with the personages, or with the afflictions of the personages, you will be committing a crime by proxy. The cinema does not exist to give a lesson in morals to anyone, but to offer everyone the opportunity to channel the aggressiveness that everyone has into a moment that could be something similar to catharsis. Hitchcock’s theory is the following: look, this moralism of criticizing violence in the cinema is nonsense, because the spectator does not go to the cinema to learn how to use this. The most important thing is that the spectator goes to the cinema to have, so to speak, that vicarious experience of living out the transgression incarnated in the personages and in the violence that is there on the screen, it’s precisely as a way of having a safety valve.

Didn’t Billy Wilder (1906-2002) do the same thing?
When Billy Wilder works out the question of the cinema, the way he was ironic as far as the cinema industry was concerned went in the direction of working out mythologies: like people, actors and actresses etc. live a certain kind of experience as central figures of the star system, and what this can cause of the nature of a caricature. I can cite as an example Sunset Boulevard, or when he does the comedyThe Seven Year Itch, with Marilyn Monroe.,

Hitchcock did a more universal work in the look about what cinema is?
Hitchcock talks of language and does an interesting thing, because he identifies the filmmaker with the person who commits the perfect crime. That is interesting: what is it to commit the perfect crime? Instead of what happened, it’s creating, it’s simulating a fiction capable of convincing people that the true story was different. That is what Vertigo is: the crime is perfect. At the time, this was a bit strange, because the criminal really goes out in the middle of the film. He succeeded in what he wanted and goes away.

As if the film ended there.
In two thirds of the film, the criminal disappears from the scene. And what is it that Hitchcock did the whole time? He created a film. The genial thing is that it is not enough to create a film, you have to create the proper look for watching that film. So what does the criminal have to do to hide his gesture and put in its place another order of events? He has to simulate, and simulation has to be effective, because it is done for a given look. The cinema industry does exactly the same as the criminal, that is, it creates the story and at the same time supposes an audience that has a certain constitution. Effective cinema, in terms of market, is cinema that is capable of doing precisely that: creating the scene, but not only the scene, knowing what kind of look has to be addressed to the scene, and knowing that the audience, which is the target, will have that look and will have that constitution that you suppose it to have. It is then that the game is made. Like the story of Vertigo: it is the relationship between the cinema and its public. Well, this is one side of the story, it is a discussion of mine of the melodrama and of this journey of the classic cinema since its formation up to this moment that I call the irony of Hitchcock and which reveals all the rules of the game. And the other side is that part, which is the second half of my book, that is the relationship between theater and cinema in Brazil, and there I took as its center the figure of Nelson Rodrigues for various reasons. The first is because he represents an exception.

An exception for the quantity of cinema productions based on his work?
Yes. We do not have a strong relationship between theater and cinema in Brazil. Of course, there have always been films that adapted plays. But although we had a theater that over a long time staged melodramas, our greatest strength has always been in comedy, with an enormous tradition that includes the vaudeville theater and musical comedy on the other. And it is curious to see the exceptions: O Ébrio [The Tipsy], by Gilda de Abreu, a film from 1946, is one of the few melodramas of great success in the history of the Brazilian cinema. In the 1950’s, the thing comes about in the same tone. That is to say, Vera Cruz, which had a strong industrial project, managed to get repercussions from dramas, like O Cangaceiro [The Brigand]. But in terms of a dialog between the cinema and playwrights, the first effective dialog, which today adds up to 20 films and has lasted 50 years and a new film, Vestido de Noiva [The Wedding Dress] is now being announced, is occurring with Nelson Rodrigues.

When structuring your essays about this dialog between the theater and the cinema, Nelson Rodrigues and the filmmakers, you analyze various different moments.
They are various moments. There is a film, isolated back in the past, which is Meu Destino É Pecar [My Destiny is to Sin], from 1952, which does not come from the theater, it is an adaptation of a newspaper serial of great success that he wrote under the pseudonym of Suzana Flag, at the end of the 1940’s. It was the first and only one of the 1950’s. In spite of Nelson having started to write the so-called carioca (from the city of Rio de Janeiro) tragedies in 1951, there were already plays like A Falecida [The Deceased] and others. With the exception of this first film, there was a silence of the cinema in relation to Nelson Rodrigues in this decade.

What were the reasons for this silence?
There was censorship. But also the fact that, for example, in the cinema of Rio de Janeiro, the lode was musical comedy. And in São Paulo, Vera Cruz and its successors had their playwrights on duty. For example: Abílio Pereira de Almeida, a playwright who used to be a partner in Vera Cruz and a scriptwriter. Now, there is another aspect that I touch on in the book, which is the turnaround from the 1950’s to the 1960’s. There is a phenomenon, which is international, that is the potentializing of eroticism and a certain general freeing up of sexuality in the cinema, which has certain icons. The greatest of them was Brigitte Bardot.

And, in Brazil, Norma Bengell.
Yes. Who, oddly enough, in a musical comedy, imitated Brigitte. And afterwards we have in the European cinema an alteration in the acting standards of sexuality, the bedroom scenes began to be more elaborate, nudity, etc. In Brazil, we had a similar turnaround, because in this beginning of the 1960’s an adaptation takes place of Boca de Ouro [Golden Mouth], by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, in which we had the famous contest of women’s breasts, and the film by Ruy Guerra, Os Cafajestes [The Vulgar People], in which Norma Bengell had a long sequence of frontal nude on the beach. At this moment, six films were made from Nelson Rodrigues: Boca de Ouro, A falecida, O beijo [The Kiss], Bonitinha mas ordinária [Cute, but a Tramp] , Asfalto selvagem [Savage Asphalt] and Engraçadinha depois dos 30 [Engaçadinha after 30].

Is this not also the moment when the New Cinema begins?
That is interesting: the New Cinema, much mobilized by political debate, a cinema that had as one of its central dimensions the thematization of Brazilian social life, did not adapt the playwrights that could be considered in tune with it. Note the inversion there is: Dias Gomes, who was a playwright from the left, has a play called O Pagador de Pomessas [The Payer of Vows], and who adapts it is Anselmo Duarte, who has nothing to do with the New Cinema, in ideological terms.

Why did the New Cinema not establish relations with the playwrights identified with it?
 In the full-length films, this in fact did not occur. Let us take the case of the Arena, where Gianfrancesco Guarnieri and Roque Veiga Filho were. Guarnieri had written the play Eles não usam black-tie [They Don’t Wear Black Tie] in 1958 and staged it with success, hence an indication of a possible adaptation. It wasn’t. The play adapted was Gimba, by Flávio Rangel, who was also not of the New Cinema. We had Roque, who was to become an actor of New Cinema, and did not have his play adapted. Jorge Andrade himself, once again, who adapted him was Anselmo Duarte, in Vereda da salvação [Path of Salvation]. And Eles não usam black-tie was to come from Leon Hirszman in 1980. Nelson Rodrigues, seen as a playwright of great stature, but at the same time a conservative man, is who is going to be adapted by two filmmakers much committed to realism, Nelson Pereira, after his fashion, and Leon Hirszman.

Was there an option for not adapting plays in the New Cinema?
One of the characteristics of the New Cinema was not to have this keynote. The adaptations that happened were a bit by force of the circumstances. Glauber Rocha, for example, would never adapt plays by others. Actually, the New Cinema was concerned with having a dialog with literature.

Did the lack of a dialog between the left-wing playwrights and the New Cinema have political reasons or merely aesthetic ones?
The New Cinema claimed for itself the right to the author’s freedom of expression and the right to a very marked subjectivity in its films, something that from the point of view of the Popular Center for Culture (CPC) where the left-wing playwrights did part of their works was not exactly the program. The New Cinema polemicized a lot with the CPC, and there was an estrangement. When we see the dialog with the playwright, it took place with Nelson Rodrigues. And this dialog is going to taken up again in the 70’s, in another key then, by Arnaldo Jabor. As he even knew Nelson Rodrigues in person and had a more marked experience of the theater, he managed to synthesize in his two films, Toda nudez será castigada [All Nudity shall be Punished] and O casamento [The Wedding ], the best dialog with the playwright. Toda nudez… is the most successful adaptation of Nelson’s work, because Jabor knew how to explore the tones of tragicomedy that best express the connections between what happens in the private world, in these family dramas, and the broader context of the history of Brazil at a given moment. So Jabor, and there he was following the tradition of the New Cinema that always wanted to represent the country, always wanted to discuss things on a much broader scale.

After the phase of the six films on plays by Nelson Rodrigues, from 1962 to 1966, what happened?
There was a period of silence, broken in 1972 with Toda nudez… But in the middle there was a fundamental thing, which was Tropicalism. Several things happen there. The first of them is the use of strategies that we call anthropophagic, inspired on the work and ideas of Oswald de Andrade, in the sense of appropriating the discourse of the other, the parody, the irony, the idea that doing a criticism of a certain state of things in Brazil could happen not just through the dramas of the New Cinema.

This is the moment when Macunaíma was launched too.
It is the moment of a great dialog with literature. There is also Os deuses e os mortos, [The Gods and the Dead], by Ruy Guerra, which does a bit of a dialog with Jorge Amado. There is a kind of transformation in the Brazilian cinema in which there occurs and prepares, shall we say, the climate for which Jabor makes his intervention. At the end of the 1970, that is where there is a strongest side of the use of Nelson Rodrigues as a siren, because there was already this cliché of the plays that had a lot of sex, a lot of eroticism, in Bonitinha mas ordinária, Os sete gatinhos [The Seven Kittens], Álbum de família [Family Album], Perdoa-me por me traíres [Forgive Me for Your Having Betrayed Me], Beijo no asfalto [The Kiss on the Asphalt]. They are all naturalist films, in that sense of being very conventional as cinema. It is when the relationship between the cinema and Nelson Rodrigues was vulgarized.

Did this not also occur because of the political situation of the time?
In part. But there was plenty of good stuff done in the Brazilian cinema between 1972 and 1980, although we were under the military regime. Joaquim Pedro de Andrade made some great films, Os inconfidentes [The Mistrustful], Guerra conjugal [Connubial War], Leon Hirszman did São Bernardo, then he did … The don’t wear black-tie, Nelson Pereira dos Santos made O amuleto de Ogum [The Amulet of Ogum], Tenda dos milagres [Stall of Miracles]. Jabor did the two by Nelson and also Tudo bem [Everything’s Alright], which has no adaptation, but is Rodriguean.

When Jabor tried to do Jabor, he actually did Nelson Rodrigues.
Yes, because the affinity is very great, and it is going to be the same affinity of the chronicler. When Jabor goes to the newspapers, he brings all this imagery that is a mixture. He joins Glauber, on one side, the New Cinema, and Nelson Rodrigues, on the other. Jabor is an allegorist like Glauber, he likes making great diagnostics. The most dense and most interesting moment of the dialog with Nelson is what Jabor has offered us. And it is there that the relationships with acting as a whole, not by chance, are best resolved. In the moment I talk about Jabor in my book, the question I pose at the beginning, which is the tradition of the melodrama and the tradition of classic bourgeois acting, reappears forcibly, because we could draw an analogy, as I am going to do from Griffith to Hitchcock, in the world of adaptation of Nelson Rodrigues, I go from the gothic, melodramatic, quite downright film, which is Meu destino é pecar [My Destiny is to Sin], to Jabor. Jabor is the moment of conscience and of irony.

And how about contemporary cinema?
The cinema today is living new realities that in part carry out a dialog with these other moments that I analyze. Today, we have a Brazilian cinema that, in part, in its dramaturgy, is collecting a gallery of frustrated masculine figures, who cannot manage to give a good account of things. One central problem in the Brazilian cinema and, in part, of the cinema worldwide, is using children as protagonists. They are the recurrent personages that enjoy the greatest success in the worldwide cinema today. This happens, first, because there is the question of a generation that has lost its paternal point of reference and, on the other hand, is totally disenchanted with history. It is very difficult today to watch a film and accept the figure of an adult hero. It is very difficult for the positive personages today to be truthful, there is a certain mistrust of the world. We realize that in serious dramas there is a situation in which it is very difficult to work out positive personages, who are shown as powerful heroes and with a capacity for deciding. We end up having a feeling that the personage that really can be treated with seriousness and liking, positively represented, a holder of values which people identify themselves with, is the child. Several films have won international festivals with children as protagonists in the last few years. Walter Salles himself, with Central do Brasil [Central Station]. This is also the strength of Cidade de Deus [City of God]: first, because the personages are children, and second, because the boys are extraordinary actors.

How do you see the relationship between the theater and the cinema in Brazil today?
If we take the nucleus of Guel Arraes in TV Globo, we see that he is working with plays by Ariano Suassuna, Auto da Compadecida [The Dog’s Will], and by Osman Lins, Lisbela e o prisioneiro [Lisbela and the Prisoner]. Guel has a clear project of incorporating a tradition of a theater aimed at popular culture and playing it both on the TV and in the cinema. It is a project that is drawing commercial television closer to the cinema, something unprecedented in Brazil.

But isn’t it also a risk?
It can be dangerous. This is being consolidated by all these current successes, Cidade de Deus, Deus é brasileiro [God is Brazilian], Carandiru, Lisbela e o prisioneiro, O auto da Compadecida, Os normais [Normal People]. Brazilian cinema is going to be divided between those who are in Globo’s scheme and those who are not. For the independents, it is a problem, because they are going to compete with a corporation that is economically strong, which has an enormous capacity for publicity. If things continue as they are, a little further on we shall have a watershed. My vision is optimist, from the strict point of view of production. The more creative Brazilian cinema from authors has always had difficulties in the market, since it fights for space with the Hollywoodian cinema. The fact of arising from the Brazilian production itself of a strong group that, associated with certain competent filmmakers, is going to create a vein of great success, and that may cause problems of room in the market for other Brazilian filmmakers, will cause a helluva shift. This makes the conflict internal, which is a good thing. I prefer the Brazilian cinema complaining about Globo than about someone who doesn’t hear us.

Has technology improved Brazilian cinemas in recent years?
In the past, we had some very bad movie theaters, and this has improved. Today, there has been a substantial alteration in the way how what is called the post-production is carried out, everything that happens after the filming. On the one hand, the equipment and the infrastructure for this have become cheaper, on the other, nowadays much of this is done outside Brazil, something that did not use to be done before. The cinema, generally speaking, now has a better sound. So it would be unfair to say there hasn’t been a technical improvement. But, beyond all this, there is the following: the cinema of the 1990’s created a kind of point of honor. We have a cinema that wants to legitimate itself in the eyes of society.

In the eyes of Brazilian society and for export as well.
All right, but I think that the first problem that the filmmaker has today is the desire to have a good image in the eyes of the public at large, the same public that watches television. It is different from other times, when we had the art film or a very unsatisfactory commercial film.

When did this concern of Brazilian filmmakers start?
It was in the 1990’s. And just look how it’s a deliberate thing, because there was no need for it to be that way. The films are being produced under the tax benefit laws, that is, the government foregoes tax instead of receiving it, allows a company to channel the money, which is public, towards production. When the filmmaker receives the money, those who gave this money is not now calling for him to bring a return. So he could make any film he wanted to, without worrying about the public. But what is happening is the opposite: filmmakers today think that the best way of applying this money is in really commercial films, for the market. Because they believe that, without this alteration in the image of their own profession, they will have no political clout for calling on the government to continue with the laws. The way for the Brazilian cinema to legitimate itself and to continue to get support on the legislative plane is for it to have the support of society. Getting this support means that whenyou talk about Brazilian cinema, people are going to say: “Great, I watched such and such film, it’s good, Brazilian cinema has improved”. This is important for filmmaker to speak more and more to the Ministry of Culture, the president, or whoever. Or to Congress.